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The Great Escape

A photograph of Joe Palmer.
A photograph of Joe Palmer

New songs such as All I Do Is Dream Of You had earlier brought on conversations about girls. But even talk of girls couldn't keep a fellow going on a hot day like this one. The temperature climbed to 106° in Huntsville on July 22, 1934, a record that still stands today. Pat Byrd had crawled into the back seat of his friend's car and both had drifted off to sleep. Just west of the Walls prison about a block, close to where the feed store now stands, they'd parked the car and now lay sweating, even in the light breeze that occasionally found its way through the open windows.

Just across Avenue I and down the street a stone's throw, little Jim Day and his cousin played in the front yard of Jim's family house. Jim's dad was over at the prison stadium watching the prison Tigers play a baseball game against one of the many semi-pro teams that came town to play the convict baseball team. All of the Tigers games were at home of course. They were not "free" to travel like the other teams. Jim and Bob frequently attended the games with Jim's dad but today they did not. So the boys played about 150 yards from the southwest corner of the prison walls.

A college girl with an uncommon name of John Douglas Weems sat in those baseball stands on that same hot summer afternoon. She and several of her Sam Houston State Teachers College friends were enjoying the game between the inmates and the Humble Oilers from Brenham. Some of the other girls had wanted to leave the game early but "Johnny" persuaded them to stay. The inmates were leading 5-1 in the 9th inning when all hell broke loose. Suddenly and without warning, gunfire came from the over the walls of the prison. It sounded like a war had begun. Guards yelled and threatened the convicts to hit the ground. All inmates went belly down immediately. But in the stands it was pandaemonium. Everyone there scattered wildly in all directions away from the Walls.

Texas Prison System General Manager Lee Simmons was also enjoying the baseball game along with the System's warden, W. W. Waid. Simmons immediately went for his car and hurriedly drove around the back side of the Walls. Warden Waid headed for the front of the unit.

The loud and furious gunshots broke the peace of sweaty sleep for Pat Byrd, who sat up straight in the back seat of the car. His dad, Joe Byrd worked for the Prison System and Pat knew something was desperately wrong.

A photograph of Raymond Hamilton.
A photograph of Raymond Hamilton

Jim Day and cousin Bob stopped in their tracks when the gunfire rang out, both regular gunshots and that of machine guns. They saw a black car underneath the corner picket and two people near the car spraying machine gun fire at all the pickets in sight. Jim's mother and grandmother ran onto the front porch and yelled for the boys to come in the house. The gunfire caused the women to quickly retreat but the boys stayed with their eyes glued to the shootout.

Guard Warren Smith was sitting in his picket facing the ball park when a rifle shot rang out sharp and clear. Smith jumped to his feet and grabbed the picket rifle. Running out to the back of the picket Smith later said that "bullets were flying in every direction". Smith saw Mr. George on the picket behind him grazed by a bullet over the eye, knocking him down. George then jumped up and started firing toward the #7 picket at the west corner of the wall. Smith started to walk the wall toward the shooting but "old man Flanagan in No 4 picket in front of me yelled to me to stay in my picket". Smith told almost the whole story in a letter to his wife, Normadale. He ended the letter with, "I can tell you more about it (when I see you).... stuff that I can't afford to write." Smith's letter was discovered by his daughter, Dora, following the death of her mother. Smith had died years earlier after a career in law enforcement, which included being a sheriff and a Texas Ranger.

Acknowledgements

  • Recollections of the story told by Pat Byrd
  • An interview with Jim Day
  • An interview with John Douglas Weems (by Sandy Rogers)
  • A letter shared with the Texas Prison Museum by Dora Carter
  • Assignment Huntsville by Lee Simmons
  • KHWBTV.com

The Rest of the Story

The rest of the story can be found in books. I'd recommend Over the Wall by Patrick M. McConal which goes into detail on the story of this daring escape attempt. We have this book and other great prison stories for sale at the Texas Prison Museum gift shop, or visit your favorite book store. Visit us in person or call us at 936-295-2155.

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